Bad loss leaves sputtering Spartans, Tom Izzo befuddled

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State's loss to Illinois on Wednesday night was the Spartans' third straight.

When Michigan State lost at home on Saturday to Indiana, the outcome didn’t come as an overwhelming shock to coach Tom Izzo.

He said he sensed the Spartans were off their game following a couple of poor practices. It led to an overtime loss to a team that had dropped seven straight, and it also became Michigan State’s second loss in a row after having won 13 consecutive games.

On Tuesday at Illinois, however, there was no feeling of surprise, only dismay.

“I don’t know. I think …,” Izzo said, trailing off as he tried to explain Michigan State’s third consecutive defeat. “I don’t know. I’ll have to watch the film. I’ve just never seen some of the things that happened today happen. It’s unexplainable.

“They outplayed us in most aspects. … I was just shocked how some guys played.”

It was the attempted explanation of a frustrated coach, but the loss to an Illinois team that entered Tuesday eight games below .500 at least provided some answers. The Spartans did not get outplayed in most aspects, judging simply by the box score. They shot better than the Fighting Illini, were superior from 3-point range and outrebounded the Illini.

However, it was the one glaring number on the stat sheet that proved to be the difference – 24. That was the number of turnovers Michigan State committed, nine coming from point guard Cassius Winston. Illinois scored 28 points off those MSU miscues, easily the difference in the game.

It explains why the loss happened. It doesn’t explain how a veteran team with a point guard playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten was so careless with the ball. Some acknowledgement goes to Illinois and its defensive pressure, but that wasn’t everything.

“I’ll give a lot of credit to Illinois,” Izzo said. “They played hard. But the turnovers? I’ll give them (credit for) half, but not (24). That is just complete ridiculousness on our part.”

Then it’s clear, Michigan State’s biggest problem this season is turnovers? After all, the Spartans rank near the bottom of the Big Ten in turning the ball over.

Well, not exactly. The Spartans had just 10 turnovers in the loss to Indiana and gave it up 19 times while beating Iowa on the road. And the last time they turned it over 24 times, they beat Texas.

So it was a huge factor on Tuesday, but it’s not the only issue with this team. The other big one has been covered up a bit by the numbers, and it’s potentially more alarming — rebounding. Michigan State won the battle against Illinois, 30-25, but it again was bad keeping the opponent off the offensive glass as Illinois grabbed 12 a game after Indiana had 20.

While Michigan State is among the leaders in the nation in rebounding margin, it’s near the bottom of the Big Ten in defensive rebounding. It was something Izzo hoped to remedy on Tuesday by taking Nick Ward and Aaron Henry out of the starting lineup as a bit of a wakeup call to start hitting the glass.

The result? Ward and Henry had one rebound each.

Ward, in particular, didn’t sound like a player with many answers on how to turn that around. When asked how he could increase his rebounding production, he said, “Rebound the ball.”

He then added, “We just got to get ready for Saturday, I guess.”

It appears the message might not have gotten through, but for a team with a small margin for error — made even smaller by the loss of Joshua Langford for the season — a large number of turnovers and getting beaten on the glass will have the Spartan not only tumbling out of the Big Ten race but in NCAA Tournament seeding.

The Spartans (18-5, 9-3 Big Ten) currently sit a game out of first place behind Michigan and Purdue and most tournament projections had them as a 2-seed this week. Expect that to change.

How does Michigan State fix its issues with eight games left in the regular season? The rebounding seems straightforward. Izzo believes it’s all effort-related, something that hasn’t been a problem on most nights.

The turnovers are a tougher one to remedy.

“You can’t turn the ball over on junior high plays and we did that,” Izzo said. “Some of it is their pressure but some of it is ridiculous.”

Odds are Winston won’t have another game like that. His nine turnovers were the most he’s committed in a game, and it would be surprising to see it happen again. And no, there will be no huge shifts in playing time. Winston and Matt McQuaid will play a ton of minutes instead of freshmen Foster Loyer and Gabe Brown suddenly seeing increased playing time.

The rotation on Tuesday is the one that will have the chance to turn things around, beginning with a visit from Minnesota on Saturday at the Breslin Center. It likely will tell a lot about whether the last three games prove to be a rough patch in the season or a sign of things to come.

“It takes everybody,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “It’s not just Cash, it’s not just Quaido, it’s not just me. It takes everybody to win the game. So everybody needs to come ready to play, everybody needs to be accountable, everybody needs to be on edge and everybody has got to want it.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau